The New England Patriots ended a two-game losing streak with a convincing 27-6 win over the Houston Texans, clinching a playoff spot and jumping back into the AFC's top seed at 11-2. If the Miami Dolphins lose on Monday night, New England will clinch the AFC East. The Texans, meanwhile, drop to 6-7 and continue to fade from the wild card picture.
Rob Gronkowski came back from a one-week absence and quickly made his presence felt, getting all alone for a 45-yard yard catch-and-run to the 7-yard line. That play set up the Patriots' first touchdown when Tom Brady hit Keshawn Martin in the end zone. The Texans had a chance to tie things up when Brian Hoyer hit Nate Washington on a 49-yard bomb, but had to settle for a field goal.
Things settled into a game of field position in the second quarter, with the two teams trading field goals and punts. The Patriots eventually got a short field and drove down into the red zone with less than two minutes left, and Brady hit Gronkowski for his tenth touchdown of the season. New England took a 17-6 lead into halftime.
The Patriots got the ball to start the third quarter and marched down the field, but a couple of long pass plays got overturned on review stalling the drive. Stephen Gostowski knocked in his second field goal of the night to make it 20-6 in favor of New England.
Houston got its first big break of the night when Martin muffed a punt, giving the Texans the ball back at the 21-yard line. However, they failed to take advantage of the turnover and missed the fourth down conversion, turning it over on downs. The Texans' offense then gave the Patriots yet another short field when Hoyer got strip-sacked inside his own red zone. Three plays later, James White punched the ball into the end zone to seal the game for the Patriots. Hoyer later left the game with a possible concussion, leaving T.J. Yates with mop-up duty in the final five minutes.
Three things we learned
1. Welcome back, Gronk. Gronkowski ended up missing just one game, and it could've been a lot worse after the way he went down in Week 12. Although he played a limited number of snaps and caught just four passes, Gronkowski made the most of his reps, turning those catches into 86 yards and a touchdown while looking like the same Gronk we know and love. Assuming he has no setbacks with the knee, he should go back to being the focal point of New England's offense.
2. Houston's offense has no answers when DeAndre Hopkins is contained. Logan Ryan did an excellent job shutting down Hopkins, who was held to just three catches for 52 yards and had just one catch at halftime. Without him involved, Hoyer and the offense looked completely lost. Hoyer finished with just 155 yards on 11-of-22 passing, averaging 7 yards per attempt and taking five sacks before leaving the game for a concussion evaluation.
Hopkins is one of the few legitimate difference-makers in a depleted Texans offense, and if he can't get open the entire passing game falls apart. The good news for him is that the Texans play the Indianapolis Colts next week, a team that Hopkins shredded for 11 catches and 169 yards in Week 5. He'll need to replicate that kind of performance in a game that could decide the AFC South.
3. The Patriots are back on top in the AFC. The Patriots had everything go their way on Sunday before they even kicked off, with the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos suffering losses. That puts New England back in line for homefield advantage in the AFC, and Sunday night's win gives it a one-game lead over both Denver and Cincinnati. With their remaining games coming against the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, there's little reason to think the Patriots will relinquish that spot again.